Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Rev. Eugene Rivers III hosted a “Thug Summit,” at the Ella J. Baker House (www.thebakerhouse.org) in Dorchester last week, to bring together high-risk youth and the former felons from Boston’s mean streets Rivers hopes will mentor them. Rev. Rivers is no stranger to battling despair and violence in Boston. The Baker House has been on the frontlines for nearly twenty years. Nor was the program set forth by Rivers at his summit a new one, but with violence skyrocketing, more funds are obviously needed. He estimates the cost of a beefed-up mentoring program to be a modest $750,000 and is asking the city and the black community to help him raise it. It’s a start. But why stop there?

It’s not hard to see the appeal of the program, which offers redemption for ex-cons, and the possibility of salvation for high-risk kids, two populations our society has relegated to the rubbish-heap. Our willingness to tolerate the idea of throw-away people is part and parcel of the human dignity deficit we have in America today, which surely contributes to the violence on our streets. We do not, as a society, do much to maintain the conditions that allow for the dignity of all our citizens, and we give those at higher risk of succumbing to despair and violence virtually nothing to strive for, and none of the practical tools needed to take their lives in a positive direction. There are those who argue that society doesn’t owe its disadvantaged a hand-up, but we all pay the price, whether you calculate it economically or morally, when we keep our hands in our pockets, shrug our shoulders, and say, “not my problem.”

So while the Thug Summit is a renewed call-to-arms to the hardened warriors at The Baker House, it should serve as a clarion call to the whole community. Because the cautionary tale provided by an ex-con is only a first step away from despair and violence for high-risk youth. If they have nothing to move toward—a practical hope, let’s call it—the work of a few dedicated warriors will still risk falling far short of what we as a community are truly capable of.

Our reluctance to dream big and act boldly for the betterment of society is part of what’s killing at-risk kids. They need more than a vague hope of escaping prison on one hand, and the promise of easy money on the other. Like all kids, they need mentoring by doctors, nurses, economists, engineers, tradesmen, businesswomen, and entrepreneurs. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. They need meaningful job opportunities that allow for learning through practice, and real possibilities of advancement. They need viable educational alternatives. No one is talking about a free ride here. What we’re talking about is a society that believes in human dignity and potential without exception. One that works earnestly to bring out the best in all of its citizens. We are not such a society, but we can dream. And dream boldly we must.

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